Harry Newton's In Search of The Perfect Investment
Newton's In Search Of The Perfect Investment. Technology Investor.
9:00 AM EST, Thursday, December 20, 2007: The
Parade of The Cockroaches. The subprime contagion
is the classic cockroach. We have no idea the extent of the mess. All we know
is that more and more of it will show up, and all of it will be ugly. Yesterday
Morgan Stanley said it was taking an additional $5.7 billion writedown. UBS
also recently took a huge additional writedown of $10 billion. (A billion here,
a billion here. Pretty soon it adds up to some real money.) I do love the Morgan
we announced today are embarrassing," Chief Executive John Mack said during
a conference call with analysts. "This loss was the result of an error
in judgment that occurred on one desk, in our Fixed Income area and also a failure
to manage that risk appropriately."
Mr. Mack gets the prize for stating the obvious. But there is good news? Mack
said he won't accept a bonus for 2007. I guess that means he gets to keep his
job. Which is genuinely amazing.
In addition to
writeoffs, the cockroaches will also produce ratings writedowns, as the ratings
agencies, like Standard and Poor and Moodys, finally get their act together
and drop the ratings on their customers, the ones who pay their salaries. (Think
how hard that is.)
But what we know
is also what management knows. Things are terrible and they ought to do something.
Which many are. Morgan Stanley is taking $5 billion in fresh capital from a
Chinese sovereign fund (sovereign means it's Chinese government money). And
that injection caused Morgan Stanley's stock to rise 3.6% yesterday.
Which brings me
to MBIA and Ambac. I've been eyeing them, thinking they were getting close to
being buyable. Apparently not yet. Both are down heavily in early morning trading,
after yesterday's news. Here's Bloomberg's story today (as posted after I posted
Risk Soars on $8.1 Billion CDO Disclosure
Dec. 20 (Bloomberg)
-- MBIA Inc. tumbled the most since 1987, and the risk of default soared after
the world's biggest bond insurer revealed that it guarantees $8.1 billion
of collateralized debt obligations repackaging other CDOs and securities linked
to subprime mortgages.
swaps tied to Armonk, New York-based MBIA's bonds climbed 115 basis points
to 595 basis points, the widest on record, according to CMA Datavision in
London. MBIA shares plunged $6.90, or 26 percent, to $20.12 as of 10:27 a.m.
in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.
a document on its Web site late yesterday showing it insured the so-called
CDOs-squared, a potentially riskier form of security than what the company
typically guarantees. Rising defaults on subprime mortgages packaged into
securities have led to bond downgrades and threatened MBIA's AAA guaranty
shocked management withheld this information for as long as it did,"
Ken Zerbe, an analyst with Morgan Stanley in New York, wrote in a report yesterday.
"MBIA simply did not disclose arguably the riskiest parts of its CDO
portfolio to investors."
followed Standard & Poor's decision yesterday to lower its outlook to
negative for the AAA ratings of the bond insurance units of MBIA and Ambac
Financial Group Inc. A telephone call to Elizabeth James, a MBIA spokeswoman,
wasn't immediately returned.
confidence expected to return to the capital markets when these types of surprises
continue to pop up?" said Peter Plaut, an analyst at New York-based hedge
fund manager Sanno Point Capital Management.
swaps tied to MBIA's bond insurer, MBIA Insurance Corp., climbed the most
in at least a year. The five- year contracts, used to speculate on the company's
ability to repay its debt or hedge against the risk it doesn't, rose 95 basis
points to 340 basis points, CMA prices show. That means it would cost $340,000
a year to protect $10 million in MBIA Insurance bonds from default for five
to Ambac rose 30 basis points to 595 basis points, according to CMA.
The Markit CDX
North America Investment Grade Index, a benchmark credit-default swap index
linked to the bonds of 125 companies, including MBIA Insurance, rose 0.75
basis point to 78.25 basis points as of 9:54 a.m. in New York, according to
Deutsche Bank AG. It fell to as low as 76.5 basis points earlier.
swaps, contracts conceived to protect bondholders against default, pay the
buyer face value in exchange for the underlying securities or the cash equivalent
should a company fail to adhere to its debt agreements.
explains why S&P and Moody's Investors Service turned more negative on
the industry in recent weeks, Zerbe said. Last month, Moody's said MBIA was
``unlikely" to fall below its target capital level for an AAA bond insurer
despite downgrades of securities backed by subprime mortgages. Ambac had been
flagged as ``moderately" likely to need more capital.
completely changes our view of MBIA being a more conservative underwriter
relative to Ambac," Zerbe wrote.
are made to borrowers with poor or limited credit histories or high debt burdens.
CDOs have accounted
for the biggest portion of the more than $70 billion in writedowns in the
past two quarters at the world's biggest banks. CDOs-squared have lost the
most on a percentage basis among CDOs linked to subprime mortgages, New York-based
Merrill Lynch & Co.'s third-quarter disclosures showed.
it would write down top classes of CDOs by $5.8 billion in the third quarter,
Merrill cut the value of CDOs- squared by $800 million, leaving it with $600
million of ``net exposure."
firms including New York-based Citigroup Inc., Morgan Stanley and UBS AG have
reported larger fourth- quarter CDO losses.
story from yesterday:
Outlook Lowered by S&P, ACA Cut to CCC
Dec. 19 (Bloomberg)
-- The ratings outlook for MBIA Inc. and Ambac Financial Group Inc., the world's
largest bond insurers, was lowered to negative by Standard & Poor's, raising
the specter of more writedowns for the companies' investment- bank clients.
cut its A rating on ACA Financial Guaranty Corp. to CCC, suggesting potential
default. Toronto-based Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce said today it may
have $2 billion of writedowns on U.S. subprime mortgage securities it insured
keep coming," said Gregory Peters, head of credit strategy at Morgan
Stanley in New York. "It's been our view that these guys are in a much
more difficult predicament than investors or the companies themselves believed."
downgrades would lead to losses of $200 billion on securities as some banks
would have to sell their bonds in a depressed market because of investment
guidelines, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. MBIA's guaranty business
stands behind about $652 billion of municipal and structured finance bonds,
while Ambac's insures $546 billion of debt. Both are rated AAA.
reduced its outlook to negative from stable for XL Capital Assurance Inc.
and placed Financial Guaranty Insurance Co.'s AAA rating under review for
a possible downgrade. The actions were "prompted by worsening expectations"
for insured nonprime residential mortgage bonds and collateralized debt obligations
of asset-backed securities, New York-based S&P said.
Ambac rose 48
cents to $27.46 at the close of regular New York Stock exchange trading. MBIA
dropped 68 cents to $27.02. The companies have lost more than half their market
value this year.
by S&P follow negative actions on Armonk, New York-based MBIA's guaranty
business and CIFG Guaranty by Moody's Investors Service last week. Bond insurers
are paying a price for expanding beyond their traditional business of backing
municipal bonds to guaranteeing debt linked to riskier subprime mortgages
and home-equity loans, as well as CDOs.
got greedy and thought they were smart enough to write structured product
insurance like it was the same as insuring municipal bonds," said Rob
Haines, an analyst with CreditSights Inc. in New York.
a stress test to determine the losses bond insurers would take on securities
backed by subprime mortgages, including CDOs. Losses were projected at $3.1
billion for MBIA, $1.8 billion for Ambac, and $2.2 billion for FGIC.
loss potential was attributed to the company's guarantees on securities backed
by home equity loans, S&P said.
cut on ACA Financial, a unit of ACA Capital Holdings Inc., may lead to writedowns
at Merrill Lynch & Co. and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Toronto-based
CIBC said today it will likely take a large writedown because New York- based
ACA insures about $3.5 billion of its U.S. subprime investments.
may have used contracts with ACA Capital to pass off the market risk of $5
billion in CDOs, Roger Freeman, an analyst covering the brokerage industry
for Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., wrote in a Nov. 5 report. If ACA Capital
defaults on its swap contracts, Merrill Lynch could recognize unrealized losses
on those securities of about $3 billion, Freeman wrote.
is required to post $1.7 billion in collateral if its rating falls at least
two steps to below A-, management said on a Nov. 8 conference call. The rating
was cut 12 levels today to CCC from A. The company said in a statement distributed
by Business Wire today that it won agreements to prevent it from posting collateral
until Jan. 18.
Cos. and Merrill Lynch are among several major banks in talks to bail out
ACA, the New York Times reported today, citing two people familiar with the
by bailing out the monolines, they're bailing out themselves, because the
hedges they thought they had with them aren't really hedges," said Toby
Nangle, who helps oversee $37 billion as head of global aggregate business
at Baring Asset Management in London.
rose 34 cents to 65 cents in over-the-counter trading on that news. The shares,
suspended by the New York Stock Exchange this week for breaching capitalization
requirements, had plunged 98 percent this year.
as of June 30 had sold protection to 31 counterparties through credit-default
swaps on $61 billion of highly rated securities, including CDOs backed by
subprime mortgage securities, according to filings. CDOs are created by packaging
debt or derivatives into new bonds with varying ratings.
of the U.S. subprime mortgage market has led to about $76 billion of losses
at securities firms and banks this year. Subprime loans are made to people
with poor credit.
Ambac, the second-biggest
bond insurer, guarantees $546 billion of securities. MBIA stands behind about
$652 billion of municipal and structured finance bonds, while FGIC Corp.,
parent of Financial Guaranty Insurance Co., insured $314 billion.
confident the performance of our insured portfolio and the measures being
taken to expand Ambac's capital position will be sufficient to return our
outlook to stable," Ambac Chief Executive Officer Robert J. Genader said
in a statement today.
For more than
20 years, the safety of bond insurance has eased the way for elementary schools,
Wall Street banks and thousands of municipalities to sell debt with unquestioned
credit quality. The bond insurers promise to make interest and principal payments
as they come due on securities if the issuer falters.
companies are going to survive, they've got to go back and focus on the core
muni business," Haines said.
and S&P, criticized throughout the credit slump for giving excessively
high ratings to asset-backed debt, took a second look at the bond insurers
in the past few weeks after sweeping downgrades of CDOs. The companies had
issued reports as recently as October that said the insurers were unlikely
to face capital constraints because of the subprime mortgage crisis.
New York Times is a pinko, commie, left-wing, "gloom and doom"
newspaper. It's not, of course. But many of my readers don't like
it and get mad when I quote it. Many didn't like yesterday's story about housing
problems in the Bronx, how people had bought houses they couldn't afford and
could now lose them.
I read extensively.
I quote from those places I find fascinating, relevant stories -- whether they
be the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times
or Best Life (see next piece). I ask that you accept my judgment -- if
I quote the piece, it's because it is worth reading. Whether you agree
with or it, or not, that's your decision. My point is that I learned something,
and I want you to learn something also. This column is not about politics.
It's about how to protect, preserve and grow our assets.
As Reverend Ike
once said, "The best thing you can do for the poor is not to be one
ways to outsmart the airlines. Excerpted
from Best Life by Peter Greenberg.
In the past
year, I have flown on 110 flightsand 11 arrived on time. ... Yes, 2007
will go down as the worst year in history for flight delays, cancellations,
and stranded passengers. ..How did we get from bad to so much worse? Well,
the Federal Aviation Administration is using a nearly 20-year-old computer
system, and it shows. Among its many drawbacks, the air traffic control system
does not adjust for increasing capacity in the sky. On the morning of June
8, 2007, a common scenario played out: The 20-year-old computers in Atlanta
failed, and when the FAA rerouted flight-plan data to Salt Lake City, those
computers overloaded. The result? Virtually every airplane on the East Coast
was grounded for an average of four hours.
As if that's
not enough, major carriers are understaffed and, as a result, have been canceling
hundreds of flights in the last week or so of each month, creating massive
delays (and stranding thousands). ... Northwest, one of the worst offenders,
is operating with 15 to 25 percent fewer pilots and copilots than it employed
in 2000. ... In the last week of June, a particularly bad month, Northwest
canceled more than 1,000 flights.. ... Here's how to avoid the crush of modern
the calendar. Schedule air travel for the first 20 days of the month.
That reduces the chances that your flight will be canceled because the pilot
or crew has already hit the maximum monthly limit of 100 hours of work.
"direct" flights. The only good flight is a nonstop flight.
Labeling a flight "direct" is an airline euphemism that means you'll
stop at least once, exponentially increasing your chances of being delayed.
3. Sign up
for e-mail alerts. Many airlines offer this service, as do Travelocity
and Expedia. Or you can go to flightstats.com, a free service that tracks
flights and alerts you when things are going wrong. To have text messages
sent to your cell phone alerting you to flight delays, sign up at flightstats.com.
You can also find updates at http://fly.faa.gov/flyfaa/usmap.jsp.
at dawn. Get on the first available flight, preferably on a plane that
spent the night at your airport. The biggest factor controlling delays is
not where your plane is going, but where the aircraft assigned to your flight
is coming from. Always call the airline before you leave for the airport and
ask the agent to tell you the aircraft number of the plane assigned for your
flight, and then ask for the status of that aircraft tail number. If you're
heading to Los Angeles from Miami in two hours but the aircraft assigned to
your flight is in Caracas
you're not going. To find out how to talk to
a real live agent for any given airline, go to gethuman.com.
5. Get creative.
If, despite using these strategies, you find yourself imprisoned for hours
in an aluminum tube on the tarmac, you may have to resort to extreme measures.
First, passengers who claim to be sick can be removed from the plane. I'm
not advocating fraud here, but I could make a case that "sick and tired
of being stuck on the runway" is a recognized medical malady, and I can't
imagine any judge failing to sympathize. If you're more inclined to be a citizen
journalist than an amateur actor, you can whip out a video camera. It gets
the crewmembers' attention (they know they're likely to end up on YouTube,
if not CNN), and you're not doing anything illegal. It worked for David Ollila
one night in June, after his Comair flight from New York to Detroit was stuck
on the ground for nearly four hours. Ollila interviewed the pilot on camera,
and the pilot threatened to call the police. "That's an excellent idea,"
the cameraman responded. Sure enough, the cops came, everyone was let off
the plane, and Ollila was cleared of any wrongdoing. Third, there's the lawyer
approach: Claim false imprisonment and demand to be released. After being
stranded for nearly nine hours on a Northwest flight in 1999, passengers sued
and Northwest settled for $7 million. Ever since, airlines have taken the
words false imprisonment very seriously.
Take 'em to court. In what could be the beginning of a trend, a
woman named Jane Waun sued Spirit Airlines in small-claims court after the
airline canceled her flight out of Detroit, stranding her family. In July,
she won a $1,350.75 judgment, which reimbursed her for hotel and meal costs,
a lost night at her destination, and the tickets she had to purchase on a
7. Take the
train. The surefire way to avoid flight delays: Don't fly. On short-haul
routes (e.g., Los Angeles to San Diego, or New York to Boston), don't even
think of getting on a plane. Go with Amtrak. I recently raced a friend
from downtown Manhattan to Washington, D.C. Our destination: 17th and K streets
in D.C. We both left at the same time. He went to LaGuardia for the Delta
shuttle. I headed for Penn Station and Amtrak's Acela. I beat him by 48 minutes.
My fare on Acela: $172. His fare on the shuttle: $276.
Ship your bags.
This beats losing them and waiting for them to return from some distant city.
Avoid major hubs. Use alternate airports. If you can fly into or
out of these secondary airports, you'll reduce your chances of being delayed:
Dallas Love Field, instead of Dallas/Fort Worth; Oakland or San José,
instead of San Francisco; Houston's Hobby Airport, instead of Bush Intercontinental;
and New York's Long Island MacArthur, instead of LaGuardia or Kennedy.
more time. Airlines sometimes leave only 60 minutes between connections.
That's a recipe for ruining your trip.
My son caught
an Amtrak train this morning. It left 4 minutes early. Go figure.
A salesman checked into a futuristic hotel. Realizing he needed a haircut before
the next day's meeting, he called the desk clerk to ask if there was a barber
on the premises.
not, sir," the clerk told him apologetically, "but down the hall from
your room is a vending machine that should serve your purposes."
intrigued, the salesman located the machine, inserted $15.00, and stuck his
head into the opening, at which time the machine started to buzz and whirl.
Fifteen seconds later the salesman pulled out his head and surveyed is reflection,
which showed the best haircut of his life.
Two feet away
was another machine with a sign that read, 'Manicures, $20.00.'
thought the salesman. He paid the money,inserted his hands into the slot, and
the machine started to buzz and whirl. Fifteen seconds later he pulled out his
hands and they wer e perfectly manicured.
The next machine
had a sign that read, 'This Machine Provides a Service Men Need When Away from
Their Wives, 50 Cents.'
The salesman looked
both ways, put fifty cents in the machine, unzipped his fly, and with some anticipation,
stuck his manhood into the opening. When the machine started buzzing, the guy
let out a shriek of agony and almost passed out. Fifteen seconds later it shut
hands, the salesman was able to withdraw his tender unit..... Which now had
a button sewn on its end.
This column is about my personal search for the perfect
investment. I don't give investment advice. For that you have to be registered
with regulatory authorities, which I am not. I am a reporter and an investor.
I make my daily column -- Monday through Friday -- freely available for three
reasons: Writing is good for sorting things out in my brain. Second, the column
is research for a book I'm writing called "In Search of the Perfect
Investment." Third, I encourage my readers to send me their ideas,
concerns and experiences. That way we can all learn together. My email address
is . You can't
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